Simply Complex

I write posts on my new 11-inch Macbook Air while listening to Joni Mitchell. The machine and the singer have two characteristics in common: they’re the best in the world in the genre they represent, and they look—or sound—simple. Thousands of wannabes set out to mimic them yet few come close to their level, let alone surpass them.

I always took it for granted that their simplicity/supremacy is difficult to achieve, yet never understood why. Simple work is made of fewer elements. Isn’t it a matter of doing less? Wannabes are racing to find a straight path to the holy grail of pureness in the jungle of incomprehensibility. And as the legend goes, most of them get lost and die in vain.

Why is it so hard to achieve beauty in simple forms? Is it because the so-called geniuses see something us mortals don’t? (That’s right, but let’s keep looking for other reasons to keep our spirit up.) What is the formula? (Yes, let’s work with this hypothesis.)

We should go back to the whiteboard and think about what makes simple work so effective. One answer is the absence of unnecessary elements. For example, the easiest way to make a car run faster is to remove excessive parts such as fake spoilers, as Paul Graham observed.

A few years ago I read an article in which a car magazine modified the "sports" model of some production car to get the fastest possible standing quarter mile. You know how they did it? They cut off all the crap the manufacturer had bolted onto the car to make it look fast.

Therefore to reach simplicity, one has to subtract, not add. Simplicity artists are not so much architects who magically know the right structure and material in the first place, they are more like archaeologists who keep digging into the wasteland until they unearth a fossil. To use a more down-to-earth metaphor, they are essentially doing the mental version of trash-dump labor, with joy.

But wait. How come there is so much crap in the beginning? Can’t we start with less waste, so that we can deal with fewer unrewarding manual tasks? I know the answer, which is simple (yay) yet disappointing (aww): No.

Even for writing this post (an excavation of a shellfish inside what probably used to be a caveman’s kitchen compared to the exposure of a T-Rex done by a professional writer), I had to spend more time sniffing around for a story fossil, any fossil, in my imaginary wasteland than actually digging it up. The problem is fossils only reveal themselves by contrasting with the surrounding material. My brain can tell the piece of white rock is what I want only if the rock is covered with yellow dirt.

In other words, without the dirt, there is no fossil. If achieving simplicity is about reaching the pure essence, then the masters are people who simply—pun intended—keep digging until they hit something different, and then dig even more until they expose the skeleton in the original form, without any trace of surrounding dirt.

Most of us give up before even hitting the fossil, either because we lack the power to endure or because we don’t care that much, or both. Endurance, that’s what achieving simplicity is about. Isn’t it simple, after all?